Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Passion 101

Passion 101

By Tom Wachunas

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
- Thomas Merton -

“It’s no secret that in America, by the time students enter college, too many of them have been successfully conditioned against creative thinking for themselves. After all, we now have digital apps for that.” - June Godwit –

“Teachers open the door, but you enter by yourself.” - Chinese proverb –

When I think about this pesky, clichéd business of making New Year’s resolutions, I’ve found some relevance in Albert Einstein’s attitude, “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” Not that there aren’t things in my life that don’t need fixed, changed, or altogether trashed. And while applying Einstein’s take on the matter might smack of rationalized procrastination, it’s nonetheless true that the holiday ritual of making an annual promise to resolve shortcomings in my life became, long ago, a toothless if not unnecessary one. In the spirit of living in the moment, it’s all I can do to stay on the straight and narrow just for today. That said, every morning that I successfully get out of bed is in fact a resolution to show up for the task at hand, fully intending to chip away – with God’s help - at the mountain of defects (mine, not yours) that can obscure a clear view of the 24 hours ahead. For as much as I see a light in the distance, I still too often walk in the dark shadows of my own ineptitudes.

Standing on the threshold of A.D. 2011, today’s task at hand is further preparation for the spring semester (Einstein’s attitude now somewhat abandoned) at Kent State University Stark campus, where I have been teaching Art Survey for about four years. It’s an interesting name for a college course, and not to be perceived or presented as Art History in the conventional sense. Really, it’s a fancy name for Art Appreciation. But calling it Art Survey suggests an appropriate gravitas beyond the smiley-faced niceties often associated with ‘appreciation,’ and that’s fine with me. This is, to be sure, a distinction of my own, and not stated anywhere in Kent course descriptions per se. Still, to best tell you what it is exactly that I teach, I’ve often called the course, in all seriousness, Passion 101.

Rest assured that there are no delusions afoot here, no misdirected conceptions of ‘passion.’ Passion for anything – in this case, for art – is not some set of facts one memorizes or masters, as in axioms, rules, or procedures. In that sense, it can’t be taught at all. But if you consider education in its truest definition and function – leading or drawing OUT as opposed to pouring or stuffing IN – then the development of passion (or at least the beginnings of it) can be reasonably seen as any teacher’s goal, however elusive it may be. Here then all kinds of metaphors come to mind in describing my classroom presence: a lamp bearer, a planter of seeds, a door opener, a fire starter. Ahh… the joys of kindling a flame. My intent is certainly not necessarily to inspire students to become art collectors, art historians, or even practicing artists, though a few have considered those paths. It is simply to inspire inspiration itself, and from there the possibility for connecting with passion, with enthrallment.

Another useful expedient is to view teaching Art Survey as the diligent tilling and fertilizing of hardened earth. Hardened earth, just barely sustaining the basics of life’s more ephemeral but necessary nutrients - that’s how I view the hearts and minds of too many freshmen. Passions waiting to be stirred. Through no fault of their own they’ve yet to really embrace what I know to be the astounding vitality and power of art. Beyond the securing of food and shelter, making art, in all its forms, is arguably the most ancient and efficacious of conscious human actions. It is far more than the luxurious pursuit of a peripheral intelligentsia, or the arcane musings of isolated or eccentric minds. It is a fact of our existence, a response to being alive, an ongoing narrative of who we are and what is important to us. And I dare say a dialogue with all of Creation.

To spark a willingness to participate in that dialogue, to navigate through its most invigorating truths as well as its most confounding secrets and mysteries, is my resolution (revolution?) for today, and for as many tomorrows as may be granted me. To aspire to anything less would be a fruitless walk in the dark.

Happy New Year.

Photo: “Philosopher and Pupils,” oil, 1626, by Willem van der Vliet

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